April 20, 2018

DEMON SEED and the Venomous Voice

Starring Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, Gerrit Graham, Barry Kroeger, Lisa Lu and the phenomenal voice of Robert Vaughn. Directed by Donald Cammell. (1977/94 min).

Available on Blu-Ray from 

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

Revisiting Demon Seed reminded me of how extensively we're shaped by childhood experiences.

I first saw the film at the Southgate Quad when I was 13. Since it was rated R, my best friend and I had to pay for a PG movie and sneak into this one. We did this quite often back then, which allowed us to sample all sorts of forbidden fruit. But Demon Seed was different, it seemed. Because of the premise and title  - not-to-mention a totally titillating movie poster (see above) - we expected not just a horror movie, but a dirty horror movie!

from WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION
It isn't, of course, though it's still plenty provocative. Julie Christie plays Susan, the estranged wife of brilliant scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), who has developed Proteus IV, an advanced super-computer that is self-aware and can do its own thinking without human input. Alex hopes Proteus will solve some of the world's greatest problems, like discovering a cure for leukemia, which it manages in four days.

But Proteus has bigger ambitions than performing such menial tasks as curing diseases or mining the ocean floor, such as being a dad. It also doesn't approve of the living arrangements and resents being trapped in its own circuitry. So after accessing a remote computer terminal at Harris' fully-automated house, Proteus takes control of all the machinery, traps Susan inside and develops a way to impregnate her, with plans to transfer all its knowledge to their newborn child. Needless to say, Susan is not on-board with this plan. Proteus doesn't appear concerned with that, forgoing the courting period and killing anyone else who approaches the house.

The happy couple.
None of this is as lurid or stupid as it sounds. In fact, other than some silly attempts at 2001-style trippiness, Demon Seed is a dark, engaging sci-fi thriller that never really found an audience and has sadly fallen into relative obscurity. Perhaps it was the timing. By 1977, when audience-friendly blockbusters were beginning to rule the box office, there was little room for adult themed science fiction. Had Demon Seed been released a few years earlier, perhaps we'd still be mentioning Proteus in the same breath as the HAL 9000 and Colossus, an unholy trinity of computers gone rogue.

But I didn't care about any of that at 13, sitting in the back row of the Southgate and developing a crush on Julie Christie. Actually, my list of childhood Hollywood crushes was pretty long. The likes of Ann-Margret, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset and Nancy Allen sent my heart aflutter, mostly because of the films I enjoyed at the time. Sure, Dunaway was iconic in Bonnie & Clyde, but I fell in love with her in The Towering Inferno. Similarly, even though she won an Oscar for her performance in 1965's Darling and appeared in such classics as Dr. Zhivago, Don't Look Now and Nashville, for me, Julie Christie would always be that bodacious British beauty from Demon Seed (it's where we first met, after all).

Julie Christie...part of your nutritious breakfast.
The real star of Demon Seed, however, isn't even credited in the film. The late, great Robert Vaughn provides the sinister voice for Proteus. I didn't know who he was at the time, but his coolly distinctive voice gives Proteus a level of menace that's rivaled only by HAL 9000's monotonic malevolence in 2001. But unlike what was required of Douglas Rain to voice HAL, Vaughn understood that the very concept of the film dictated that Proteus, though devoid of emotion, came across as slightly lecherous, maybe a tad arrogant...sort-of like a mechanical Harvey Weinstein. It's a chilling performance.

As far as I was concerned, Demon Seed firmly established my perception of Vaughn as a supremely intimidating individual. No matter what films I saw him in afterwards, hero or villain, his unnerving delivery was potentially traumatizing. It's a tragedy he never got the opportunity to play a Bond villain.

If you could see Robert Vaughn's voice, it would definitely look like this.
Man, if I could speak like Robert Vaughn, I'd win every argument with my wife, my kids would never talk back and the neighbor's dog would stay the hell off my lawn. And wouldn't it be great if Build-A-Bear offered a Robert Vaughn voice chip that said "Run, you little bastard" when the stuffed critter's paw was squeezed? It'd be the perfect gift to scare the shit out of that obnoxious nephew in the family.

Demon Seed features Robert Vaughn at his most sinister. Though he may not appear on-screen, it's impossible to mistake that voice for anyone else. The film itself looks and sounds a bit past its prime, but the concept remains intriguing and the smart, tension-filled story is bolstered by strong performances from one of my middle school sweethearts...and one of my middle school boogeymen.

EXTRA KIBBLES
TRAILER
KITTY CONSENSUS:
PURR-R-R...LIKE A GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS

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